Beginning and End of the Universe Motif in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

As one reads Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, many motifs begin to surface throughout the novel; one such motif is mentions of the beginning and end of the universe, as well as the continuous passage of time outside of a human lifespan.

For example, while Janina watches the weather channel:

So is it true that we live on the surface of a sphere, exposed to the gaze of the planets, left in a great void, where after the Fall the light was smashed to smithereens and blown apart? It is true. We should remember that every day, for we do tend to forget. We believe we are free, and that God will forgive us. Personally I think otherwise. Finally, transformed into tiny quivering photons, each of our deeds will set off into Outer Space, where the planets will keep watching it like a film until the end of the world.

page 20

While she looks out over the Plateau, imagining what it used to look like:

There could have been nothing but grass here – large clumps of wind-lashed steppe grass and the rosettes of thistles. That’s what it could have been like. Or there could have been nothing at all – a total void in outer space. But perhaps that would have been the best option for all concerned. 

As I wandered across the fields and wilds on my rounds, I liked to imagine how it would all look millions of years from now. Would the same plants be here? And what about the colour of the sky? Would it be just the same? Would the tectonic plates have shifted and caused a range of high mountains to pile up here? Or would a sea arise, removing all reason to use the word ‘place’ amid the idle motion of the waves? One thing’s for sure – these houses won’t be here; my efforts are insignificant, they’d fit on a pinhead, just like my life as well. That should never be forgotten.

page 26

While confronting hunters near her house:

At that point I felt a surge of Anger, genuine, not to say Divine Anger. It flooded me from inside in a burning hot wave. This energy made me feel great, as if it were lifting me off the ground, a mini Big Bang within the universe of my body. There was fire burning within me, like a neutron star.

page 30

While working on her astrology charts:

At this very moment, as I write, there’s a planetary configuration on this table, the entire Cosmos if you like: a thermometer, a coin, an aluminium spoon and a porcelain cup. A key, a mobile phone, a piece of paper and a pen. And one of my grey hairs, whose atoms preserve the memory of the origins of life, of the cosmic Catastrophe that gave the world its beginning.

page 67

And while she sits in prison, reflecting on life:

Sparks come from the very source of light and are made of the purest brightness – so say the oldest legends. When a human Being is to be born, a spark begins to fall. First it flies through the darkness of outer space, then through galaxies, and finally, before it falls here, to Earth, the poor thing bumps into the orbits of planets. Each of them contaminates the spark with some Properties, while it darkens and fades.

page 100

This motif is one of the many ways Tokarczuk’s writing gives us insight into the unique inner workings of Janina’s mind. She sees everything as part of a whole: a complex system that makes up our world. This perspective is part of where her compassion for animals comes from; to Janina, every human and animal life plays an equally important role in the larger equation of the universe. The other side of that coin is her view that morality and the greater system is more important than individual life, which becomes part of her rationale for murdering the hunters.

Additionally, in a few instances Janina references the Big Bang (a “cosmic Catastrophe”), in reference to herself and her own emotions. This idea ties into the other ways Janina likes to describe herself as one with nature and the universe. She manages her pain by picturing herself reborn as a jellyfish, convinces herself she can communicate with the animals that live nearby her, has dreams about visits from dead relatives, are describes her anger as a fire or a universe-beginning explosion. Janina doesn’t just see the world as a divine system, she also sees herself as uniquely in tune to that system. She very well may be more reflective and in touch with nature than other characters in the novel, but the reader can also see this cognitive distortion grow throughout the book and eventually become something dark and dangerous.

On yet another layer, the mentions of an aging and dying universe that will long outlive both Janina and humanity as a whole could be seen as a parallel to her own aging and struggles with her Ailments. She is grappling with the reality of illness and inevitable death, so it makes sense that she would reflect on the world’s lifespan and the ways her community will outlive her. Her age gives her a unique perspective not always represented in novels, and part of the way that manifests is her ability to look at things on a larger scale that couldn’t be fathomed by a younger narrator.

And finally, the motif could also be said to reflect the way Janina finds the bad in good things and the good in bad things. She once refers to herself as seeing the world “through a dark mirror,” and one could argue that thinking of the world as born from destruction and headed towards inevitable decay is an example of this kind of pessimistic mindset. But alternatively, the reader could think of it as Janina’s way of finding joy in “Catastrophe.” Finding beauty in a universe born from destruction requires a unique optimism that our narrator seems to possess, despite how she describes herself.

Working on each of these levels and more, this motif helps build several themes throughout the novel. It can evoke interconnectedness, strong emotion, inevitable death, or creation from catastrophe, all of which shed light on Janina’s unique perspective on the world and Tokarczuk’s unique writing style. This was one of my favorite motifs of the novel, and I hope others find it as interesting as I did!

The Fool and The King: The Role of The Fool in King Lear

The character of the Fool in King Lear plays an inherently critical role in both the development of Lear’s character and the progression of the story as a whole. From the very beginning of the play, the Fool’s position is unique in that he is the one person in the kingdom who can talk back to the king, as long as he does it through jokes and rhymes. As a result of this unique position, the Fool is the first character to tell Lear he made a mistake in banishing Cordelia and giving his power to Goneril and Regan. He acts as an unofficial advisor and conscience for Lear, while adding an element of comic relief to the play. As the story continues, the Fool leaves with Lear when he runs out into the storm at the end of Act II, and he continues to act as a physical manifestation of Lear’s internal self-criticism via color commentary throughout Act III. But then, in the middle of Act III, The Fool disappears and the audience doesn’t see him for the rest of the play. That could represent Lear’s madness—he no longer needs an advisor once he reaches the point of no return—or it could be a sign of Lear accepting his daughter’s betrayal and thus no longer needing the Fool to narrate his mistakes. Either way, The Fool seems to act entirely in relation to Lear. He has no visible agenda of his own; he acts almost as more of a symbol than a character. That detachment allows him to act as reflection of Lear’s character development throughout the play, giving the audience insight into the King that wouldn’t be possible without the addition of the Fool. 

Musical Poetry: “You’re On Your Own, Kid” by Taylor Swift

“You’re On Your Own, Kid” is the fifth track on Taylor Swift’s newest studio album, Midnights. The song offers a vivid, though somewhat intangible, tale of growing up, which is interspersed with specific anecdotes that ground the song in a truly poetic way. 

Opening the song, Swift sets the scene by singing “Summer went away/Still, the yearning stays.” This is an example of a technique Swift uses often, where she uses seasons and seasonal imagery to convey the passage of time. The idea of summer fading into fall signifies the passing of a phase in one’s life, and could be argued to allude to a summer romance mentioned in several of her other songs. In the second half of that stanza she continues: “I wait patiently/ He’s gonna notice me/ It’s okay, we’re the best of friends/ Anyway.” These lines sharpen the image of a young girl waiting for an anticipated dose of male attention, and even sacrificing her own emotional wellbeing in the interest of waiting for him to “notice her.” The tone is bittersweet as she longs for affection while simultaneously trying to grow up and realize herself. 

Later, in the second stanza, Swift continues to narrate the disproportionate emotional labor done by a teenager with a crush: “I hear it in your voice/You’re smoking with your boys/I touch my phone as if it’s your face.” This scene conjures up an image of the narrator pining over this guy, while he is unaware of her pain simply living his life without her. The simile of her touching her phone “as if it’s your face” is an especially vivid image for gen-z teenagers: when your phone is your connection to someone you care about, it can sometimes feel like it takes on a greater significance as your link to them. Taylor goes on: “I didn’t choose this town/I dream of getting out/ There’s just one you could make me stay.” This part gives the listener more detail in their mental image of the pining teenager. She has big dreams far beyond her hometown, but her feelings for this boy who doesn’t value her are still holding her back. 

Taylor continues the motif of seasons and images of growing up in the pre-chorus with the line “From sprinkler splashes to fireplace ashes.” These images show another transition from summer to winter, whereby sprinklers represent playing outside in summer and fireplaces represent winter. But at the same time, sprinkler splashes imply a certain youthfulness and fireplace ashes conjure a more mature image. Going a layer deeper, it could also be argued that a sprinkler splashing gives life and beginning while fireplace ash represents the end of something and what remains after a struggle. The repetition of this line adds a powerful meaning to the song about growing up and about the story of this girl letting go of the guy she pines for and finding her own identity. 

She begins that process of letting him go in the next verse with, “I see the great escape/So long, Daisy May/I picked the petals, he loves me not/Something different bloomed/Writing in my room/I play my songs in the parking lot/I’ll run away.” Here Swift alludes to “Daisy May,” an innocent young girl who she feels she is leaving behind in order to realize her dreams. She then references an old childhood game little girls play, where you pick leaves off a flower and with each petal say “he loves me” then, “he loves me not” for the next petal. The phrase that lands on the last petal of the flower is supposed to tell the fortune of if a crush likes you back. Swift uses this allusion here to conjure up childlike innocence

while showing that the narrator, presumably Swift herself, has learned that she can’t make this man reciprocate her feelings. She then talks about writing and performing songs, showing that she has moved on to chasing her dream of being a singer-songwriter and realizing her own goals.  

She then presumably throws herself into her career to a stressful extend, because by the next verse, after another “From sprinkler splashes to fireplace ashes” she narrates “I gave my blood, sweat, and tears for this/I hosted parties and starved my body/Like I’d be saved by a perfect kiss.” She has now poured everything she has into performing, only for it to destroy her in the process. She also comments on how she still craves male attention, to the extent of body image issues that cause her to starve herself. This sentiment is shared by many women trying to survive in an industry where their success is so often reliant on sexualization and male approval. She continues this idea in the next stanza with “The jokes weren’t funny, I took the money/My friends from home don’t know what to say” to show that she has given into some of the shadier parts of the music industry and feels like she’s lost herself in the process. 

In the bridge, however, the song has a sort of volta where Swift transitions to talking about finding joy in life that both comes from within and focuses on what is happening in the moment. She sings: “‘‘Cause there were pages turned with the bridges burned/Everything you lose is a step you take/So make the friendship bracelets/Take the moment and taste it/You’ve got no reason to be afraid.” These lines mean that everything we lose and hurt ourselves with in the process of growing up is a learning experience that shapes our future. So the only real way to get through it is to focus on each day—to “take the moment and taste it.” 

Swift closes the song with a last repetition of the chorus line and a closing statement: “You’re on your own, kid/Yeah, you can face this” This manta highlights that the maturity and self-realization she’s been narrating can only come from within, and no one else can do it for you. 

For these reasons, the emotional journey this song takes the listener through is visceral in a way only poetry can be. To classify this work as anything else would be borderline disrespectful to its beautiful lyrical message. 

Exit West: Why Magical Realism?

Exit West is a novel full of complexities and commentary on migration, relationships, death, war, loss, and the evolutions of our identities over time. What one has to wonder, amid all these layers, is why Hamid chose magical realism as the framework through which to tell this story. Arguably, he could have written a realistic fiction novel that could tell a distinctly similar narrative–or at least communicate the same themes–without the use of magical doors.

I would claim, however, that magical realism is a critical part of Hamid’s story. Through the clearly fantastical element of the doors, Hamid creates a world that is just removed enough from our reality for him to comment on modern society while maintaining a certain distance from it. It’s not hard to draw connections between Saeed and Nadia’s story and real-world debates around immigration, international tensions, racism, and xenophobia. Hamid does not try to hide those themes, but he also doesn’t comment on them directly. He creates this world that is almost ours, but with the distinct difference of the doors, in order to explore these ideas in a more theoretical context. Exit West is the story of our world, if something were to happen tomorrow that destroyed our notion of nations and borders as we know them. That theoretical gives Hamid room to explore vast societal issues without directly commenting on any current events. It allows him to create a vividly relevant novel without referencing any specific real-world events, which both makes his commentary more powerful–as it can stand on its own, without the need for outside context–and helps the reader maintain a Nabokov-style impersonal imagination throughout the story.

The Power of Self Recognition in “202 Checkmates”

At the end of “202 Checkmates” by Rion Amilcar Scott, the main character of the story–a 12 year old girl–lets her father win a chess game that she could’ve beaten him at, even though he has won and gloated about it the other 201 times they’ve played. Throughout the story, she has been getting better and better at chess by learning from expert players at the park and studying the flaws in her father’s strategy. Her goal has always been to eventually beat him. At the same time, she’s been watching him struggle with unemployment, drinking, and marital issues, while using chess with her as an outlet/distraction from her problem. So, when she is finally poised to beat him at his own game–one move from winning–she decides to throw the game. She realized that he needs that win more than she does. He uses chess to maintain their power dynamic of FATHER/child, in order to comfort his own insecurities about his life and marriage. She is is growing out of that power dynamic, as she seeing her father’s issues and finds her own autonomy. But for her, finding agency and confidence doesn’t have to mean winning. Knowing that she can win is enough, because she is giving herself the recognition she needs, not waiting to get it from her. She outgrew his childish demeanor around chess, and she is willing to let him win the game in order to affirm to herself that she doesn’t need the that recognition to know that she won in the long-term.

Opinions on Nobakov

I wanted to use this post to circle back to a conversation we had in class late last week, where several classmates and I raised our concerns/critiques of Nobakov’s “Good Readers and Good Writers.” I want to reiterate and clarify that, although I understand the need for a framework when reading in a literature class, I deeply disagree with his argument about things “good readers” do. Nobakov says that in order to be a “good reader” one must use an “impersonal imagination,” where they do not see themselves in the story nor connect it to their own life, but instead properly immerse themselves in the world they are reading about. I see where he is coming from here, but I stand by that a key rule of art–maybe the only rule art has–is that the artist gets no say in how people interpret their work. To try and demand how a reader sees your writing is not only impossible, but also somewhat narcissistic. It’s a sign of a god-complex: a hubris large enough to think that an author has the right to control the inner workings of a readers brain. One of the most valuable aspects of art is the variation in how different people interpret the same piece. When Nobakov tries to control how we read, he attacks that aspect of the process, which does a disservice to the readers and to the work itself.